On the evening of November 8, 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an announcement that changed the country overnight. He declared Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes to be instantly invalid in a move which intended to end ‘black money’ and crack down on the funding of ‘illicit activities and terrorism’. While we are yet to really ascertain what demonetisation did for black money or illicit activities, there is no denying that the move ended up taking down a fair number of unintentional victims, chief among them being women who were forced to break their private piggy banks in the open.
In the grand scheme of things, these amounts, objectively, were small, but for the women who spent the years saving them, the effects of demonetisation were significant, and in some cases, distressing.
The cash hoarders
Hoarding cash is a result of financial dependence. According to a UN Report, 80% of women in India don’t have bank accounts. Housewives have no access to money except to what is given to them by their husbands for managing the household, or when they ask for it.
Culturally, we are taught that asking for money, especially for items of leisure or self-indulgence is a bad thing, and that ‘good wives’ are self-sacrificing women who put their family above themselves. It doesn’t help that women are almost always excluded from matters and decisions that involve money.
As a result, women hoard cash to save for items that their families won’t ‘approve of’.
It was demonetisation that really brought the cash hoarding habits of Indian housewives (I’ve discussed them briefly in this column before) to light. Women all over the country who had spent years accumulating cash that they had saved for themselves from household budgets – we are talking years of haggling with vegetable sellers, tailors, grocers and assorted traders, years of stashing in whatever little cash gifts they received from relatives during festival times and years of tucking away the change they found in the pants that they washed every day.
A good percentage of these women, however, possessed the privilege of a mostly stable home where they could have potentially retrieved some of the money after the initial embarrassment passed.
Some other women weren’t as lucky.
The victims of violence
Women from lower income households (especially those with abusive husbands and families) also hoard cash, but for entirely different reasons. Most of these women are the sole breadwinners of the family who earn money by working through multiple laborious, low paying jobs, only to have their money taken away from them by their husbands.
Their secret ‘savings’ end up feeding and clothing their children and paying for their education. The effect that demonetising their money had was devastating – there were several reported spikes in domestic violence rates and women being thrashed and thrown out of households for saving money without their husbands’ knowledge. Madhya Pradesh saw a 27-year-old woman being thrown out of the household along with seven of her children because her abusive husband found out that she had Rs 4500 with her.
Even if they didn’t have much in savings, the income of these lower income groups also took a beating during demonetisation because their employers and customers found themselves unable to pay in cash, and as a result, their households suffered.
Bringing women into the banking system
It’s easy to sit on our respective high horses and talk about why these women didn’t have, or open bank accounts. This is because we have the privilege of education, a privilege that blinds us to how unfriendly banking establishments can be to people of low income groups, especially women, who are spoken to condescendingly and treated unfairly.
Forms are rarely available in vernacular languages, and very few staff help those women who can’t read or write. It doesn’t help that a lot of these women also carry the fear of being cheated of whatever little they have.
It is important that we bring women into the banking system because it gives their money security, and gives them the confidence to utilise their money the way they want to. Banks and bank staff need to be sensitised to help women across all income groups open and operate their own accounts. If we don’t bring more women into the banking system and empower them by teaching them how to control their money, the cycle of cash hoarding will never see an end.
Our country may have gotten rid of its Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes overnight, but it’s going to take a while to get rid of all the ways in which we mistreat our women.